Ashley Canter is a Catholic convert, a farmer’s wife, and the mother of five children. Having earned a BA in European history from Ohio University and married soon after, she and her husband settled on an organic dairy farm in rural Wisconsin. Here, she speaks with Word on Fire’s Robert Mixa about her family’s unexpectedly rural life, and the surprises and challenges that enhance her life of faith by deepening her trust. She believes that Catholic family life is strengthened by living liturgically, playing outside, and reading great books.
What compelled you and your husband to raise your family on a farm?
After we were married, my husband went to seminary and was ordained a Protestant clergyman. His first parish was in a very populated area, and we were a long way from home. When we could no longer resist the conviction to convert to Catholicism, he lost his job (along with the provided house and health insurance; I was half-term with our third child at the time). It was a terrifying, exhilarating time; and we realized that we had the opportunity to seize a completely new life for our family. We moved back home and bought our first house with a few acres. The next day we were received into the Catholic Church. It was the happiest day of my life. We moved on Christmas Eve, our son was born in February, and the first little tractor and ten sheep followed that spring.
My husband considered entering Catholic holy orders under the Pastoral Provision, but ultimately decided to focus on his first vocation: our marriage and family. He was obviously in need of a career change, so he decided to make a go of farming full time. We had moved to a larger farm, which he renovated and turned into a certified organic dairy. These changes all took us a long way from where we started, but back to the beginning in a way. Every decision was a conscious choice to take our children back to the land.
Transitioning to farming has not been easy. But our children are growing up knowing where the trillium blooms, and how to nurse a newborn calf. They understand where their food comes from, and the part they play in sustainable agriculture. They have witnessed the cycle of life and death, and learned to respect it. Some of them are old enough to help now, and they know what hard work is. They may or may not choose to follow in our footsteps, but I trust they will have learned what we set out to teach them.
How has farming helped cultivate the imagination of your children?
There is no place like a farm for giving children the scope they need to be children. With a varied landscape to roam and endless hours to do so, they can build their own little world. The fallen tree becomes a fortress, and the gully a little town. When they find a stick or a rock or a bone, it becomes a tool of immeasurable value. They can rig almost anything out of branches and baling twine: one made a bow and arrow that shot every bit of forty feet. They explore and create, and then make it beautiful with handfuls of feathers and wildflowers.
The children are as much at home outside as inside; as probably most children would be, if they had the chance. And the animals! I think the animals give them constant hope. No matter how many litters of kittens the barn cat has, each one is greeted with fresh excitement. The chickens are fussed over and petted, and the gathering of eggs effects an Easter-morning joy every single day. Every calf is the cutest, every lamb the sweetest. A sighting of a deer or a fox—or especially an eagle—remains a thrill, no matter how often it happens. And they know that if they see the killdeers swooping through the pasture, they are too close to the nest and must quietly retreat.
I see my children building, dreaming, telling stories. They fashion fairy huts out of old birds’ nests, and talk about what they’ll do when they grow up. It might change a hundred times a day, but they’re always wanting to make the world better. I think this sanguine tendency is within every child, and I give thanks every day that mine have the chance to show it.
Has farming deepened your faith?
Yes, but not in the way you might expect. It might just as easily have ruined it. In the three years since we started milking cows we’ve endured record flooding, rock-bottom prices, and deadly disease. Every day we face challenges that could bury the whole operation; it’s happened to too many friends and neighbors. God has not spared us these difficulties—most of them completely beyond our control—and life on the edge of a knife can easily lead one to wonder what it’s all for.
I used to long for some stability, some security from this precarious (and dangerous) occupation. The constant worry in itself felt worldly and misplaced. Had we made a mistake? I had been lured into a false sense of contentment by the securities of modern life. Farming permits no such luxuries. You must embrace it as it is, for it’s always going to be hard. I have had to learn to find joy and peace in acknowledging that.
My faith has been tested, but is perhaps the stronger for it. I must often remind myself to consider the lilies of the field, and take just one day at a time. I am grateful for every meal I serve, every cheek I kiss. Each day is a gift, no matter what it brings. His grace is sufficient.
Ashely’s recent chat with Word on Fire, centered on the use of classic literature as a complement to catechesis, can be read here. Her reading recommendations and reflections on creating a Catholic home can be found at The Family Bookshelf. You can also follow her on Facebook at The Family Bookshelf and on Twitter.